Stewart Downing’s return is a huge boost but Aitor Karanka knows he needs more firepower if his team are to live up to the tag of joint promotion favourites, writes Leon Wobschall.
IF rival Championship managers cared to peruse Middlesbrough’s powerhouse squad, chances are that the majority would be green with envy.
The options that Aitor Karanka can call upon in 2015-16 are considerable – two senior players in every position, and good ones at that, almost across the board.
Perhaps only the depth of quality at Derby County can match that at Boro and it is no surprise in that regard that the two are level-pegging and rated as joint-favourites for promotion.
Boro’s squad is more formidable than the start of 2014-15, a campaign when they reached the play-off final and were firm automatic promotion contenders for nearly all of its entirety.
But as it stands, the Teessiders have a glaring deficiency in one department. The business one.
In the final analysis, a lack of goals from their striking contingent cost Boro promotion last term, with the statistics bearing this out.
The trio of Patrick Bamford, Kike and Jelle Vossen managed 33 Championship goals between them, 17 of which arrived from the former, who returned to Chelsea at the end of 2014-15 after a season-long loan which saw him crowned as the division’s player of the year.
In comparison, champions Bournemouth’s attacking triumvirate of Callum Wilson, Yann Kermorgant and Brett Pitman struck a combined 48 league goals, nine fewer than the tally posted by runners-up Watford, whose front three of Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo and Matej Vydra wreaked havoc.
Cameron Jerome, Lewis Grabban and Gary Hooper, the trio of central attackers at Norwich – who broke Boro’s hearts at Wembley – produced a combined aggregate of 42, with the statistics of all the promoted teams putting those of Karanka’s side in the shade.
You can bet your bottom dollar that those numbers were circled in red ink by Karanka and his chairman Steve Gibson on the morning after their Wembley no-show.
It makes Boro’s lengthy pursuit of Jordan Rhodes, who has hit 73 league goals in three seasons at Blackburn, something akin to a “no-brainer”.
In layman’s terms, signing Rhodes would read as a cast-iron promise of at least 20 goals.
In the aftermath of that shattering final defeat in late May, Karanka spoke about Boro being still “on schedule”, with a top-six finish in his full first season in charge being the aim and not necessarily promotion.
Given a close-season which has seen Stewart Downing return to Teesside from West Ham in a deal which will be worth £7m if Boro go up, it is clear as day that the bar has been raised significantly this term.
As far as this summer’s Championship deals go, bringing Downing “home” represented Boro’s most stellar move at this level since Bryan Robson brought in Paul Merson from Arsenal for £5m ahead of the 1997-98 campaign, a season when Boro went up.
What is also clear 18 years on is that anything other than promotion in 2015-16 would represent a failure for Boro, who will be banking on Downing displaying similar talismanic qualities to Merson.
Yet even accounting for the purchase of Downing, the coming weeks to the end of the transfer window could well decide Boro’s fate, with this season – more than ever – the one to reach the Premier League Promised Land.
The new £5.136bn TV deal will kick in next season, with the riches for the top-flight clientele simply staggering – even the club that finishes bottom of the table in the 2016-17 campaign will pocket a cool £99m.
Last August, the concession of nine points in a month which saw Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Reading beat Boro arguably cost them a top-two place, with Bamford not making his debut until August 30.
But patience may have to be a virtue in regard to the pursuit of Rhodes, with Karanka, as is his way, keeping calm about the situation. For the time being, anyway.
Karanka said: “We have a good team, a good squad. We are working on Jordan and other players.
“A coach always wants more players, but I prefer to wait until the last day of the transfer window to see where we are with the squad.
“On September 1, I will then say it is the best squad in the league.
“Sometimes, things don’t happen in one month or three weeks and then can happen in a couple of days.”
Aside from up front, there may look to be few short-comings in Boro’s squad.
But Karanka is still plotting other pieces of recruitment, another sure sign as any that Gibson means serious business.